When people talk about Japanese role-playing games, certain images pop into mind: scrawny and under-dressed teens saving the world, ridiculously complex story lines, and ground-breaking graphics. While it’s true that these stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, the world of JRPGs is one of the richest and most fascinatingly diverse in all of gaming. They inspire fierce devotion both from fans and gamers. So I have tried to come up with a list of ten of the greatest RPGs that Japan has to offer. Because this list could easily be populated entirely by games from one or two franchises, I have limited myself to only ONE TITLE PER FRANCHISE. I have tried to make my pick from each franchise based on a combination of their overall quality, historical significance, and impact on gaming technology. So here are ten of the all time greatest JRPGs presented in chronological order based on their original Japanese release dates.
10. Dragon Warrior III (1988)
The Dragon Warrior franchise is the series that started the entire JRPG ball rolling. The first title has been called the first console RPG. If DW1 started the console RPG, Dragon Warrior III perfected it. The game follows a traditional early RPG storyline: a group of adventurers must band together to save the world from a great evil power. But it was in the execution that DW3 really excelled. The game revolutionized nonlinear game play, introduced the idea of a day-night cycle, and innovated in-game class systems. Your party was completely customizable. You could hire and fire party members whenever you wanted. Each character could change their class and maintain their old classes abilities, states, and skills. To this day, there have been only a handful of titles that have had such a streamlined and perfected class system that anybody could pick up and master regardless of player skill. It also speaks volumes that DW3 has maintained its title as one of the best entries in the Dragon Warrior franchise over twenty years after its release. Sometimes you just get it right the first (or third) time.
9. Earthbound (1989)
Known as Mother in Japan, Earthbound is one of the most unique, quirky, and downright enjoyable JRPGs ever made. It follows a group of four young children, led by Ness (who was later popularized in the Super Smash Brothers series), who must save their world from aliens, dark forces, and all other assortment of baddies. The game isn’t that difficult and it didn’t really do much in terms of innovating the franchise. But what the game DOES have are some of the most creative characters, enemies, and settings in video game history. In one level you fight giant alien Starmen, in another massive dinosaurs, and in another terrible robots! The game seems to suffer from a massive case of ADHD, as it can never stay in one place or commit to one style for very long. The result is a highly addictive and unforgettable JRPG experience. The game was so successful that it spawned a trilogy of games and became one of parent company Nintendo’s most beloved, and enduring franchises.
8. Chrono Trigger (1995)
Time traveling hijinks abound in this epic and massive classic of the JRPG genre. Chrono Trigger can best be summed up as a game following a group of time-traveling adventurers who must save the time-stream from a great, unstoppable evil. Characters include a medieval princess, a brilliant mechanic, a frog who happens to also be a knight, a futuristic robot, a prehistoric cavewoman, and a katana-wielding everyman. The video game also featured an incredibly easy-to-use yet in-depth combat and ability system. Chrono Trigger helped reinvent the idea of plot-related sidequests. But what really separates Chrono Trigger from its competitors is its multiple ending system. While the game has a linear plotline, depending on how you play and how many of the sidequests you complete, you can achieve one of thirteen alternate endings. The endings reign from tragic to happy to downright bizarre. The multiple ending system guarantees multiple playthroughs, thereby cementing Chrono Trigger as one of the most enduring JRPGs ever made. Chrono Trigger was followed up with the highly successful and beloved game Chrono Cross. To this day the debate rages over which game is better among fans and critics. But Chrono Trigger is the game that started it all and therefore gets the spot on this list.
7. Pokemon Red/Blue (1996)
One would be hard-pressed to find a single video game franchise that had such a massive and recognizable influence on popular culture as Pokemon. In the last 90s the Pokemon franchise EXPLODED! The simple series about catching, training, and fighting wild monsters with crazy abilities named Pokemon hit the world like a title wave. Over ten years later, the franchise has given us countless games, a long-running television show, over a dozen movies, and more merchandise than you can shake a wallet at. Many of the characters and creatures from the games have become pop culture icons in their own rights. Pokemon Red/Blue, the first games in the franchise, were two versions of the same game with only minor variations. However, you could only catch certain Pokemon in each version, requiring many gamers who wanted to catch them all to by both versions of the game. In addition to creating one of the highest selling and most beloved video game franchises in history, Pokemon gave birth to a bevy of cheap knockoffs and imitators. With new games being announced and released every few years, it doesn’t look like Pokemon will be going anywhere anytime soon. And we all have Pokemon Red/Blue to thank for it.
6. Final Fantasy VII (January 1997)
This is probably the most controversial pick on this list due to the large number of incredible games in the Final Fantasy franchise and how each of them has their own independent fan base. Whether or not it is the best of the series is up for the fans to debate. But one thing that cannot be disputed was that Final Fantasy VII was the breakout game in the Final Fantasy franchise. In addition to being one of the PlayStation’s breakthrough and highest selling titles, it paved the way for legions of JRPGs to be released outside of Japan. The game has a truly epic plot line. The best way to sum it up without spoiling too much is to say that it follows a team of freedom fighters struggling against an evil corporation that is literally destroying the world by draining its life force. But in addition to its great writing, it was the first game in the franchise to feature full motion video sequences and computer graphics which, while ugly and dated by today’s standards, were revolutionary for its time. Also featuring one of the most famous villains in video game history, Sephiroth, and one of its most popular heroes, Cloud, FFVII has gained a rabid fan base. Again, while its title as the “best” entry in the Final Fantasy franchise is debatable, it was easily the most influential and historically significant.
5. Grandia (1997)
Most JRPGs prefer to either take place in a world of fantasy and magic or technology. Grandia has the best of both as it is set in a world of emerging technology. The game follows a young boy named Justin who goes on an epic journey to discover the truth about a long-lost civilization. Chock full of engaging and entertaining characters and one monster of a plot, Grandia has since become regarded as one of the greatest RPGs of all time by many game critics and reviewers. Of important note was its combat system that heavily emphasized the location of combatants on the battlefield and the ability to counter or disrupt enemy attacks. Like Earthbound, Grandia as so successful that it led to a main trilogy of games and a wide variety of spin-off titles. A MMORPG, Grandia Online, is currently being developed.
4. Suikoden II (1998)
The Suikoden series is a popular JRPG franchise that has to date produced five main titles. Each one of the games takes place in the same world and timeline. One of the central aspects of the series are the True Runes and 108 Stars of Destiny which are represented by in-game characters. While the series has consistently been a solid series altogether, many consider the second entry, Suikoden II, to be the best. The game features a massive cast including over 100 characters that can be used in combat. To describe the plot that these characters find themselves in is headache inducing and nearly impossible. All you need to know is that it centers on a hero and his best friend who share both halves of the Rune of the Beginning and must navigate through the intrigues and trials that await them for possessing such important artifacts. Suikoden II works on a truly massive and epic scale. While the game is now widely accepted to be a classic of the JRPG genre, it was originally subjected to a mediocre release which prevented the game from receiving a reprinting. As a result, copies of the game reach upwards of $150. If you can find the game and have some extra cash to burn, you too can enjoy one of the greatest JRPGs ever made.
3. Xenogears (1998)
Quick! What do giant robots, the Kabbalah, and Friedrich Nietzsche have in common? If you said Xenogears, the critically acclaimed JRPG that broke boundaries, shattered conventions, and amazed gamers all over the world, you are right! Xenogears has one of the most in-depth and well-written stories in video game history. In fact, in the second half of the game, the gameplay takes a backseat to the story! Of course, this led to legitimate complaints within the gamer community who were offended that the game took away so much control from them in the latter points of the game. But you don’t play Xenogears for the combat (which, in all fairness is pretty fun once you get the hang of it), you play it for the atmosphere and incredible story. Providing one of the most unique JRPG experiences in history, Xenogears is not a game to miss.
2. Kingdom Hearts II (2005)
Kingdom Hearts was a dream come true: a combination of one of Japan’s greatest franchises (Final Fantasy) and one of America’s greatest franchises (Disney). The plot circles around a group of heroes (among them Donald Duck and Goofy) who must save the universe from evil forces. Many of the worlds in this universe are in fact the settings of different Disney movies! Throw in a bevy of Final Fantasy references and characters and you have a game made in nerd heaven. There remains a great argument over whether or not the sequel is better than the first. But I give the edge to the sequel. The reason is that in the sequel the references to both franchises were more streamlined and seemed like intrinsic parts of the story instead of just cameos. This may have to do with the game that came between the two, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, that set the stage for a whole plethora of original characters that were not native to either franchise. Because of these new characters and ideas, it seemed like a more original game. It doesn’t help that it includes some of the best gaming moments of the decade (Cloud and Squall team-up, anyone?).
1. Persona 3 (2006)
As you’ve probably noticed, a lot of these games have centered around plucky teenagers going out to save the world. Persona 3 takes this common JRPG trope and turns it on its head, resulting in one of the darkest and most compelling games in years. It centers on a group of high school students who can tap into the mysterious Dark Hour, an hour that most people don’t notice between midnight and one o’clock. During this hour they must travel to a large tower called Tartarus to fight a race of monsters called Shadows that feed on humans. To fight them, they must summon Persona, or manifestations of their inner beings. This is not your typical JRPG. It is a long, brutally hard game. But it is well worth the results as it rewards you with a fascinating, character-based story that will keep you guessing until the very end.